Uncle Tupelo: No Depression

[28 March 2014]

By Jerrick Adams

This is it: the much celebrated cornerstone of contemporary alternative country, an album so influential that its title became a synonym for the form itself. To be sure, it’s a lofty legacy for any album to live up to. In fact, it’s rare that such vaunted releases make good on the promises of their accompanying hype. But Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut, No Depression, does, resolutely and without fail.

Listening to it now, knowing full well its place in the canon and its impact, No Depression remains startling, its aural hallmark being a ferocity that inspires glib punk rock comparisons. These aren’t altogether off the mark, of course, but they do gloss over key differences. Where punk rushes forward, thrashes, and bellows, this music by contrast stops and starts, pummels, and howls. Both are intense, but where the sound of the former signifies rage, the sound of No Depression signifies something far more tortured and far more painful.

Indeed, this difference may very well be the record’s great triumph, the quality that separates it from others of the same stripe. The endless, inescapable drudgery of Midwestern life is a subject so common in rock and country as to be trite, but on No Depression, writers Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy miraculously render it new. Where lesser writers simply rail against the flat, wearisome environs of middle America, Farrar and Tweedy give voice to the characters that populate the place. As a result, songs like “Graveyard Shift”, “Life Worth Livin’”, and “Flatness” (or “Factory Belt” or “Train” or any of the others) rise above the usual whiny, escapist clamor of much comparable fare. Instead, these cuts are nuanced, empathetic, and emotionally resonant.

Nowhere is this more evident than on “Whiskey Bottle”, an aching, infuriated meditation on the endemic alcoholism that ravages much of the Midwest. Beginning with a keening pedal steel and gentle acoustics, the chorus gives way to a blast of electric wrath.

A long way from happiness
In a three-hour-away town.
Whiskey bottle over Jesus …
Not forever, but just for now.

The supplemental material that comprises the bulk of this deluxe reissue is instructive, but it falls well short of revelatory. The assortment of live and demo recordings that round out the package illustrate the fine line that divides the good from the transcendent. Take, for example, the live acoustic rendition of “Whiskey Bottle”. It’s more than adequate, even quite moving in its own right, but it simply can’t compare favorably with the version that appears on the album. Stood up next to each other, one is an enervated whimper and the other a wounded roar.

This, however, is really a trifling concern. Even if you already own an earlier copy, the vastly improved sound quality here is more than enough reason to replace it. And if you don’t ? For God’s sake, pick this up now. If you care a thing for rock ‘n’ roll, country, or American music in general, No Depression is simply essential.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/179969-uncle-tupelo-no-depression/